Updated Feb 14, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Everything we know about the mysterious objects shot down over North America

 A ship scans the sea during efforts to retrieve and recover the Chinese spy balloon on Sunday.

A ship scans the sea during efforts to retrieve and recover a Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Saturday. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

U.S. forces shot down an airborne object over Michigan's Lake Huron on Sunday afternoon, the fourth such downing in the past eight days.

The big picture: The chain of events — perhaps based on increased vigilance rather than fresh threats — has no peacetime precedent, Defense officials said.

  • Three of the objects remain unidentified as the U.S. and Canada search for them in Alaska, Canada's Yukon territory and Lake Huron — after a surveillance balloon sent by the Chinese government was shot down in early February.
  • The U.S. intelligence community has had no indication so far that the three objects were tied to external espionage efforts, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday.
  • A leading explanation could be that the objects were "benign" and "tied to commercial or research entities," Kirby said, though he added that no individual or entity has yet come forward to claim the objects.

Object 1

The balloon sent by the Chinese government was downed by an American fighter aircraft above the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina with President Biden's authorization.

  • U.S. military commanders developed plans to take the balloon down over water to minimize risk, the Department of Defense said in a statement. The mission was carried out in coordination and with the support of the Canadian government, the Defense Department said.
  • The balloon had entered Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Jan. 30 before crossing back over into the U.S. on Feb. 1, per AP.

Worth noting: The balloon sent by the Chinese government had the capability to collect communication signals, a State Department spokesperson said.

  • The balloon's antennas were "likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications," the State Department spokesperson said.
  • That would be inconsistent with the Chinese government's claims that the balloon was a civilian aircraft being used primarily for meteorological purposes.

Object 2

A second high-altitude object was shot down on Friday above territorial waters near Alaska.

  • According to Kirby, the object was downed "out of an abundance of caution" after it was determined it could pose a "reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight."
  • The U.S. does not know yet whether the object was owned by a state, corporate, or private entity but did assess that it was unmanned before shooting it down, he said.

Object 3

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Saturday that an unidentified object had been shot down in northern Canada's Yukon Territory by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

  • Trudeau spoke with Biden ahead of the operation to down the object, which was initially detected on Friday evening, the Pentagon said in a statement Saturday.
  • Canadian forces were working to recover and analyze the wreckage of the object in the Yukon, Trudeau added.

Object 4

A fourth object — and the third unidentified one — was shot down over Michigan's Lake Huron on Sunday afternoon.

  • NORAD detected the object on Sunday morning and began tracking it before launching Canadian and U.S. aircraft to investigate, per a Pentagon statement.
  • While the object did not pose a "kinetic military threat" it was determined the object could be hazardous to civil aviation.
  • NORAD would "work to recover the object in an effort to learn more," the statement added.

Zoom out: China has flown similar surveillance balloons over more than 40 countries across five continents in the past, per the State Department spokesperson.

Here's what we know

The Pentagon has accused China of using the balloon to collect information on sensitive military sites, which China denies.

  • The State Department spokesperson said on Feb. 9 that the balloon had solar panels that were big enough to produce sufficient power to "operate multiple active intelligence collection sensors."
  • The Pentagon said when it announced that it was tracking the balloon that it did not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.
  • The Pentagon said Feb. 3 that a second spy balloon sent by the Chinese government was traveling south of the U.S., transiting Latin America.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Feb. 3 postponed his planned trip to Beijing, saying the surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace "is a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law."

Thought bubble via Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently softened his tone towards western nations, hoping for a thaw in relations as he grapples with major domestic challenges.

  • But sending a spy balloon directly over the heads of the American populace has accomplished the opposite, greatly raising the sense of a direct Chinese threat to the American homeland.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional reporting and developments.

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